A Loss

Warwick Broadhead
Warwick Broadhead

I’ve lost a friend, Warwick Broadhead, who met me off the ferry on my return to Waiheke and drove me plus luggage in his little red car to Rocky Bay.  He’d organised two Argentinean Guys to un-pack my store room, unroll the rugs and place the furniture. Warwick unpacked some kitchen boxes until the teapot and kettle came to light then made tea. He was famous for making tea. I’d been away – off Island – for the first performance on his new solo show, Monkey, which he planned to perform in 30 episodes on the first Saturday of every month.  It is now Friday and I am about to phone him to find our how it all went.  There’s a voicemail on my phone from mutual friend, Richard asking me to call, and an email from both Richard and my cousin Mary Taylor saying that Warwick had died.

I collect Richard from the ferry and drive him to the Warwick’s house, collecting victuals on the way.  His house is on top of a hill above Palm Beach, looking over native bush to the west towards Auckland and east over the Hauraki Gulf. Warwick’s friends and family, led by his younger sister, Anne are gathered – there are nephews, wives, partners and close friends.  The house is mostly one large bare room of specific and magical dimensions.  It has a curved ceiling meeting at a high point in the centre where a cupola entertains a small glass chandelier. At the kitchen end the wife of one nephew is preparing food – people sit on the built in banquettes talking, but the main activity is through the hall in Warwick’s small bedroom where he has been laid out. Strict instructions have been left for the procedures around his death, preparation and burial. There is to be no embalming or refrigeration and he is not to be cremated but buried on a bier (no coffin) at a depth of less than two metres.  There is to be no headstone, just a Kauri tree planted on top of him.  It’s a hot January and Richard is worried about the no refrigeration rule.  Warwick’s sister and family are washing the body and rubbing on fragrant oils and eventually we are invited into the bedroom where he is lying on his side wearing only a loincloth.  As predicted, the body is already starting to go black and we are all invited to place Kawakawa leaves on him.  These have great medicinal properties and were used by the Maori people, so it seems to make sense.  I place a few leaves on his feet, but there is a crowd all eager to help, so I pick the leaves off the branches and hand them to the other mourners.  He has to be turned and with guidance from Anne, everyone contributes.

The family want to use St Mathew’s in the city but are worried that a non religious ceremony may be unacceptable.  I’m able to offer reassurance as the service for Phillip three years ago was held there and they are known to be inclusive.  I make myself useful by driving a couple to catch a ferry, then go home and ring my cousin Marie, the celebrant for Phillip’s funeral. She confirms that St Matthews is inclusive and that there should be no problems and also there is an Auckland cemetery for natural burials.  I ring Warwick’s number and talk to Anne.  They are in the middle of discussing arrangements and so are glad to get the information.  Apparently the natural burial cemetery is full and he will have to go in Waikumete Cemetery in west Auckland at a depth of two metres.  He can’t have everything.  Richard phones, asking me to come and have something to eat and collect him but there’s not much left by the time I get there and we are just about to leave when there is another arrival.

‘Will we see you tomorrow?’ Anne asks.

‘Just to bring Richard up, I think you need the space and there are so many others to visit.’

Her face brightens in tired gratitude.

The funeral is on Tuesday, five days after the death and I’m worried how decayed the body will be in the summer heat.  It’s time to get the black suit on but wearing the jacket is just impossible in this heat.  I pack sandals and shorts and my swimming gear for training later.  There are others on the ferry obviously going to the same funeral. I’ve time for a coffee in town, but this means that when I get to the church it’s fairly full – standing room only or seats behind pillars in the nave.  I eventually find a good seat in the gallery at the back with a clear view of the proceedings.  Warwick is already in position on a bier which has low plywood sides with cut out handles.  He’s covered with white fabric, an ostrich feather fan and flowers.  Someone is swinging an incense burner around to reduce detectable odour of decay.

Once the family and close friends have entered, Anne begins by telling us how he died – on his bed reading a book about angels.  She then goes on to itemise Warwick’s demands for the post death process, which apparently pushed the limits of the Natural Funeral Company and some compromises had to be made on both sides.  Anne describes the fascination of watching the body decay, something that Warwick wanted her to experience.  She links this to the many dead, decaying in the heat, in war-torn parts of the Middle East. Family difficulties are acknowledged and his nephews speak about the life of their gay uncle, who they clearly adore.  They are proud of his achievements and particularly grateful to him for showing them how to be sensitive men – not always easy in this country.  Two of the nephews have been brought up speaking Te Reo Maori so there are speeches and waiata (song) in the language.  The wife of one of the nephews is Maori and sings beautifully as does one of the choristers from his choir.  There is a woman from the Waiheke Spinners and Weavers who speaks. They were very much a part of his life in later years.

Some weeks ago I happened to be on the same ferry and sat chatting with him as he spun his wool using a spindle – amazing. Three years ago I’d collected lichen and used it to dye wool for him to spin.

There are tributes from friends, many of whom performed in his astonishingly creative productions.  They speak of the inspiration and the frustration and of Warwick’s playfulness, bordering on wickedness at times.  His search for spirituality was a life-time journey to escape his Catholic background. This search took him around the world.  He studied the tea ceremony in Japan and brought it back to New Zealand, adapting it to his own design. One friend tells the story of waiting for a train in Turkey and Warwick engaging with a group of very handsome guards in uniform.  With no common language, friends were temporarily made, creating an impromptu play. Photographs were taken in every combination with the eventual discovery that the train had been cancelled.

And so the stories continue for two hours. My friend Richard speaks last – about his relationship with Warwick, describing them as ‘Play Mates’. Richard wants to explore the darker sides and, using the quote form Monty Python’s ‘The Live Of Brian’ explains that Warwick ‘was not the Messiah, he was a very naughty boy.’  He had a need to be the centre of attention and his crimes are listed, including ‘attempted murder’.  This reference goes back to the time Warwick was staying with me and Phillip in London during his ‘Hunting of the Snark’ tour – a one man show he performed in people’s living rooms, using little figurines and props.  Phillip and Warwick took to each other and became firm friends.  Phillip however was a wind up, teasing person and one evening at dinner the play became too much for Warwick who threw the cutlery down the other end of the table.  A deathly silence ensued and Warwick was mortified.  Friendship cooled and forever after, Phillip would always remind him of his attempted murder.  I guess Warwick had some vestiges of Catholic guilt but they eventually patched things up and three years ago on Waiheke, Warwick was a great support when Phillip died.

Richard also recounts his own Father’s funeral only a few weeks ago when Warwick, feeling a lack of attention, began hitting him on the head – hard.  It is all delivered to us so comically that we are roaring with laughter.  Throughout the service there is sadness, silence and great laughter.  One woman gets us all to stand and clap – it goes on for ages.  Warwick liked applause.  He is carried out by his nephews and nieces leaving us to tea, savouries and cakes.


Four of us eventually pile into Richard’s Rav4 and speed out to West Auckland and the grave-side.  We are the last to arrive and screech to a halt just in time for the last ceremony. Some of the children have questions, like ‘Do the eyes rot first’ and ‘how will he get down the hole?’  A girl offers a polished stone to be buried with him and one of the nephews had been wearing their father’s silver tie pin all day.  Should this go in as well?  No, some of the other nephews haven’t got to wear it yet.  Finally they are ready to lower the bier with the straps, when Anne cries out that there is plastic.  An artificial rose is recovered – he didn’t’ want to be buried with any plastic.  Someone points out that the clasp on the Ostrich feather fan is plastic.  She makes a gesture of resignation and defiance as if to say that if he wants his Ostrich feathers, he will have to put up with some plastic.  Shovels have been provided and everyone takes a turn to fill the grave while a Maori chap plays a guitar and we join in the singing.  A man with a digger waits quietly to one side, in case.  But the family are determined to complete the job and eventually the digger man, un-needed, trundles his machine up the hillside and away.

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